There’s no two ways about it: Paul’s second letter to the folks in Corinth can be tough to read. When Paul is not ranting and raving against his “super apostle” foes who have been badmouthing him up one side of the street and down the other, Paul also makes it clear that he himself has endured a bevy of woes, travails, beatings, and that mysterious thorn in the flesh too. Back in his celebrated Pharisee phase Saul’s star had been in the ascendant and no small amount of various perquisites and other pleasant things attended that rise.
But ever since the Jesus whose name Saul had been trying to wipe from the face of the earth had met Saul in a blinding flash of transformation, Saul-turned-Paul’s star for Jesus had also been rising but in this case the results were anything but perks. The world roughed up and killed Jesus, after all, and as Jesus himself had promised his followers, it would keep doing the same to them. “Tell me about it” would doubtless have been Paul’s reply to that promised persecution.
All of which brings us to 2 Corinthians 4 and the first few verses of chapter 5 (the Lectionary includes only 2 Corinthians 5:1 in this reading but that’s almost like stopping in mid-sentence so go ahead and include verses 2-5 while you’re at it). If the Apostle Paul had been one of the world’s first “bi-vocational pastors,” then we know that his day job was tent-making. And so unsurprisingly in 2 Corinthians 5 he reaches for a tent metaphor when describing what was going on to his physical body (and the bodies of also his roughed-up apostolic colleagues).
“My outward tent is wasting away” Paul writes, seemingly without complaint. “The fabric is torn, rain gets in, the more vibrant color of the original tent fabric long ago faded away to now some dull gray, pale looking thing. I’ve lost half my tent pegs and two of the supporting cord ropes have frayed to almost nothing. One strong gust of wind could knock this old tent down to a flattened mess.”
All things being equal, this sounds like the rhetoric of a defeated man. But “defeat” is a far cry from Paul’s tone here. Yes, yes, it is at least as bad as Paul describes it here but yet he is able to dismiss all that as “a light and momentary affliction.” Really?! Sounds miserable enough to me. How can Paul keep his chin up, keep going, carry on for the kingdom of God when his earthly tent is in undeniable tatters? Because through Christ Jesus he knows a larger truth: there is a divine Tentmaker who is even now designing and fashioning something quite wonderful for us all. This earthly tent is not the end of the story. Not by a long shot.
There is this thing that Paul eloquently labels a kind of “weight of glory” that had gotten itself deep inside him through faith. Paul doubtless knew that the Hebrew word for “glory” is kabod, which also means “heavy, weighty.” Glory has power behind it, oomph. It is heavy enough to create its own gravity well—as the planets orbit the sun because the sun’s weight and mass bend space around it, so also once the weight of glory gets into your core being, everything else in your life orbits around it. Everything gets focused on that glory and that glory’s own heft nuances, qualifies, helps you to see even the harder things in your life in a new light.
Paul would probably be the last person to wave off someone’s lament over life’s hardships or the persecutions one might endure for Christ’s sake. My own European Reformed tradition has sometimes been caricatured—though the caricature is not far from the truth—as brushing off every bad thing by comparing it to something else. “I used to complain about my migraines until I met a man with a brain tumor . . . The crippling arthritis in my feet seemed bad to me until I met a woman with no feet at all . . .” I don’t think Paul would do that. Some bad things happen in our lives and they are not the way it is supposed to be, they hurt, they wound and there is a whole biblical tradition of prayer designed to deal with that fact: lament.
Still, by faith a weight of glory exists inside each one of us now and while that does not mean the tattering of our earthly tents is no big deal, it does mean that this is not the final deal. Fixing our eyes on the eternal things of Christ helps us to not lose heart, not ultimately, not finally, not as the last word on anyone’s life.
Whenever we preach, we inevitably address people in our congregations who are keenly aware of the wasting away of the earthly tent. It may not be—as it was for Paul—primarily due to persecution. More likely it is the forty-something mother of three who senses that the more the doctors chase those breast cancer cells here, there, and everywhere in her body, the less likely it is she will live to see 50. More likely it is the 70-year-old man who realizes that he is not just having trouble remembering names anymore as a part of normal aging—no, sometimes he has to work harder than is typical to figure out if he is even supposed to know that person who just came up to him in the supermarket for a chat or not. More likely it is the dear saint of the congregation who, it seemed, used to serve on about every committee the church had but who now sits slumped in a wheelchair near the back of the sanctuary when everyone else stands to sing.
Few people need a preacher to convince them that our earthly tents waste away in one form or another. What they need is the Gospel word that their doctors and therapists and home health care providers cannot provide: the Good News about that weight of glory that cannot be dislodged from inside these sagging old tents. The Good News that there is a master Tentmaker who is even now sewing and stitching something together for each one of us—something quite extraordinary.
When our tents tear and sag and ultimately really are laid flat by a stormy gust of wind, there is yet another word to be spoken. We do not lose heart. Not at the bedside of the Hospice patient, not at the funeral, not at the solemn lump-in-your-throat graveside of ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We do not lose heart. Our troubles may not seem light or momentary but in the face of all eternity, they are. They will give way to something glorious.
That is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Preach it!
From Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper, 1979, pp. 128-133).
On the Apostle Paul:
“He was not much to look at. ‘Bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose.’ Years after his death that’s the way the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla describes him, and Paul himself quotes somebody who had actually seen him: ‘His letters are strong but his bodily presence is weak’ (II Corinthians 10:10). It was no wonder. ‘Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one,’ he wrote. ‘Three times I have been beaten with rods, Once I was stoned. Three times have I been shipwrecked. A night and a day I have been adrift at sea. In danger from rivers . . . robbers . . . my own people . . . Gentiles. In toil and hardship, in hunger and thirst . . . in cold and exposure’ (II Corinthians 11:24-27). He was also sick off and on all his life and speaks of a ‘thorn in the flesh” that God gave him to ‘keep him from being too elated.’ Epilepsy? Hysteria? Who knows? The wonder of it all is that he was able to get around at all . . .
“Nobody’s sure whether he ever got to Spain the way he’d planned or not, but either before he went or soon after he got back, he had his final run-in with the authorities and the story is that they took him to a spot about three miles out of Rome and right there on the road, where he’d spent most of his life including what was in a way the beginning of his life, they lopped off his head.
“At the end of the less than flattering description of his personal appearance, the Acts of Paul and Thecla says that ‘at times he looked like a man and at times he had the face of an angel.’ If there is a God in heaven, as even in his blackest moments Paul never doubted there was, then bald-headed and bowlegged as he was, with those eyebrows that met and that over-sized nose, it was with angel-eyes that he exchanged a last long glance with his executioners.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 10, 2018
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 Commentary